Senators on the Commerce Committee pushed a pair of nominees to the Federal Communications Commission to go on the record about some of the most contentious issues in telecom during a nomination hearing on Wednesday.
Democratic nominee Jessica Rosenworcel, a top committee aide, and GOP pick Ajit Pai, a lawyer at Jenner & Block, walked a fine line between showcasing their expertise and avoiding answers that could box them in on issues they may soon regulate.
But there was no sidestepping this week's escalating conflict between AT&T and the FCC, which released a staff report opposing the proposed merger with T-Mobile over the company's objections. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he was "concerned" about the FCC's decision to release the staff report -- which contained detailed criticisms of the merger -- and asked the nominees to weigh in.
Both nominees answered carefully.
"I believe it’s within [the FCC chairman's] statutory authority, but I will acknowledge it's probably unprecedented," Rosenworcel said.
Pai said he would "view the discretion [of the FCC] as one that should be exercised very carefully" but added he wasn't briefed on the issue.
"To the extent [releasing the document] aggravates people in industry and on the Hill, that's something I would take into account," Pai said.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski defended his decision to release the document during a news conference Wednesday.
"The report that was released yesterday was a report developed for public release in an important matter that remains highly relevant," Genachowski said. "The FCC still has the responsibility ultimately to approve any transactions and the reasons to release it were the ones that were discussed yesterday: fairness to the interests of all the parties that have participated in the proceedings, and transparency."
AT&T cried foul this week when the FCC published the document. The decision was viewed as an aggressive attack on the merger because the findings could hurt AT&T's court battle with the Justice Department, which is fighting the deal on antitrust grounds.
Genachowski, however, did not acknowledge any link between the decision to release the documents and the Justice Department's suit.
"We have independent jurisdiction to make independent decisions about matters before us. But that is something the staff can help to explain in more detail," he said.
Beyond the AT&T question, the nominees didn’t shy away from clear positions on divisive topics, generally reflecting the mainstream views of their respective parties.
Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., pressed the nominees to take a position on his legislation, approved by the committee in June, giving airwaves to public safety agencies so they can build a nationwide communications network.
“It’s pretty hard to argue this is a bad idea,” Rockefeller said. “It doesn’t cost the taxpayer a single dime. I will ask each of you: will you be supportive of the committee’s efforts with respect to this legislation?”
He got two yesses.
The committee approved Rockefeller’s legislation approving this policy earlier this year.
Rockefeller told Rosenworcel and Pai they should “should feel pretty good about your chances.” But an obstacle to clearing the nominees remains.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, reaffirmed his commitment Wednesday to holding up the process unless the FCC releases certain documents about LightSquared, a wireless startup mired in regulatory problems because its service may interfere with GPS devices.
“There’s nothing new on whether the FCC will provide the information I requested. The FCC hasn’t made any move to provide the information. As a result, my intention to place a hold on the FCC nominees, should they reach the floor, stands,” Grassley said in a statement.